The Biden administration faces multiple, overlapping crises as it takes over the reins of government. Despite that, the new administration must think of tech policy and funding as a national security imperative to ensure the United States’ competitive advantage globally — especially in the context of increasing security and economic challenges from many nations, notably China. And it must start working on that challenge from Day One.
The bad news: The United States is losing its long-held technological superiority over China and other nations, and this poses a threat to our ability to project power, maintain alliances, enforce international and U.S. laws overseas, and defend the United States and our interests.
As more and more of the most innovative technology is developed in the private sector, China and others can buy the best emerging technology, invest in the companies developing it, or steal the technology and intellectual property once it is developed.
China is at the center of so many supply chains that old ways of looking at technology controls are no longer valid. And while companies will try to protect proprietary information, the research and development of commercial products will not have the same levels of security as technological research done by the government specifically designed to yield products to support military personnel deployed to a battlefield, as was the norm in the past.
Further, the U.S. government is failing to take advantage of the best available commercial technology, developed using billions of dollars of private capital, because of the difficulty of navigating the federal contracting process.
The result is that while the private sector is accounting for an increasing share of the over half a trillion dollars that the United States spends on R&D each year, our national security is too dependent on the 10 percent of that R&D that is performed by the federal government. Until the United States can access all of the best commercial products, we will continue to lose our advantage in areas where we should be increasing it: artificial intelligence, machine learning, encryption, data analytics and cybersecurity.
The good news: We have the capabilities to overcome these threats and trends if we harness the power of our commercial innovation and stop putting unnecessary barriers between the private and public sectors. The even better news is that many in government have recognized these problems and are working to fix them.
For example, steps have been taken to provide additional flexibility within the Small Business Innovation Research program for venture-backed small businesses. And there are relatively new organizations across the Department of Defense with talented leaders, such as the Defense Innovation Unit, the National Security Innovation Network and NavalX, among other organizations that are dedicated to changing the way government acquisition works to ensure the U.S. government and military have access to the best technology.
This work is being supported by Congress to provide the authorities to ensure that government contracting is not only feasible for the largest defense contractors. However, it is critical that this progress is not limited to pockets of innovation scattered throughout the DoD. There needs to be a systemic approach to retaining and incentivizing innovators, as well as the products of their work. And there needs to be a wholesale shift across government to make purchasing of commercial technology as simple to sell to the government as it is in the private sector.
The United States must protect its emerging technology, and not only in the defense realm. American armed forces are coming to rely on more than just weapons systems to be able to win in tomorrow’s technologically driven battles. So our tech policies and funding opportunities must go beyond the traditional defense industry.
The U.S. federal government must also focus on policy that spurs tech innovation, bolsters the commercial tech industry, and incentivizes research and development in the private sector. Most of all, we must take better advantage of the emerging tech innovation that already exists here at home in private sector tech companies that are equipped to succeed in and vetted for the federal market.
Of course, all of these policy and funding changes must go hand in hand with an evolution of the way the government evaluates emerging technology and supply chain security. The DoD will need to build expertise and partner with federally focused experts in the private sector to make sure U.S. tech companies are fully vetted for the government market. The DoD needs to leverage the tools of the private sector to evaluate companies, make strategic investments and vet dual-use commercial technology.
To the newly appointed leaders in the Department of Defense and elsewhere in the administration, there is a mandate not only to innovate but to treat tech policy and funding like American security depends on it. You don’t have to go it alone, but you do need to lead.
Bob Scher is a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans, and capabilities. He is currently an advisory board member at Dcode and a distinguished visitor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House.