Since World War II, the American people have believed our military has had the best of everything, but the technological superiority that kept us 20 years ahead of our competitors has rapidly diminished. In some cases, we’re already behind. By 2030, unless we pursue “urgent change at significant scale,” as former Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis put it, it’s likely the U.S. will face an enemy with superior weapons, superior equipment and superior capabilities.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in our strategic competition with China. China used to just steal our technology. Now, through heavy investment, they are improving it. The result? China is outpacing the U.S. in key areas like hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence and biotechnologies — not to mention conventional capabilities.
China isn’t the only one. Technological development is accelerating across the globe, expanding to more actors and changing the very nature of war.
We can’t afford to let our advantage erode further. It is up to the Department of Defense and Congress to make sure that the defense-industrial base becomes, as the National Defense Strategy demands, an “unmatched 21st century National Security Innovation Base.” If we want to “sustain security and solvency,” we need to consider wholesale change to industry culture and its interface with the Department of Defense, shed outdated management processes, and reimagine a resilient supply chain that mitigates 21st century risks.
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This begins with software, which is foundational to military capability. The DoD and its traditional hardware-dominant industry partners have been behind on software in almost every way — talent, tools, development and delivery processes. Software innovation has failed in countless DoD programs, including the Ford-class carrier, the F-35′s Autonomic Logistics Information System and the GPS next-generation operational control system. Instead of taking the Pentagon for granted as an endless source of cash flow, partners must refocus their attention on delivering secure capability that actually works.
Next, the Department of Defense needs to continue to expand capacity — prioritizing speed of delivery and adapting its systems to maximize value and output. For too long we have been slow to expand our stockpiles of fifth-generation weapons required to fight peer adversaries. The second production line for JASSM-ER cruise missiles is a good start toward building the capacity needed to retain advantages that will make any enemy think twice before attacking. We must do the same for other fifth-generation weapons, including air-to-air missiles.
Shipbuilding, including aircraft carriers, surface ships, submarines and our logistics fleet, is another area where our capacity is severely limited. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy, which recently surpassed ours in size, is on track to reach 400 ships in 2025 and is nearly self-sufficient for all components.
Size of the fleet isn’t a sole consideration. We’ve focused on ensuring the capability of our fleet remains unmatched and bolstering suppliers of critical components, but we must also improve the construction performance of lead ships in new classes to maintain and build upon our capability advantage. The last thing we want is a fair fight. Innovation is best done at the subsystem level through a rigorous engineering-based process centered on building knowledge through full-scale prototypes, which can then inform ship design. We are eager to work with the Navy to identify and fund more of these prototypes, which will serve as the building blocks of the future fleet.
We also must accelerate innovation. Recent defense authorization legislation encourages the DoD to streamline acquisition, take a business-minded approach to contracting, and tap into nontraditional suppliers and public-private partnerships. This must continue. Dilapidated testing infrastructure is holding us back from catching up to our enemies. Just look at hypersonic weapons: Beijing is parading around dozens of its newest weapons, and we have yet to build one. The DoD has looked to Silicon Valley, but we are competing with Chinese influence there as well, and the Pentagon has often proven an impossible customer due to its antiquated bureaucracy.
Any technological improvements will be meaningless if vulnerable to being infiltrated or stolen. Recent legislation continues support for the DoD as it assesses and mitigates risks to its supply chains posed by adversaries. Both the government and contractors need to cooperate on and use modern verification tools to identify trusted suppliers and manufacturers, as well as fix vulnerabilities. To make these tools useful, the DoD must first establish a working digital model of its suppliers.
Lastly, while we must continue to invest in the domestic, organic industrial base, it’s important to remember that we can’t take on China and Russia alone — which is why the National Defense Strategy emphasizes our network of allies and partners. We must remove unnecessary barriers to industrial cooperation that degrade our collective competitive edge.
We do not have to make a false choice between investing domestically and in our allies — we can do both. Under our National Technology and Industrial Base partnership with Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom, we can develop a more diverse, resilient industrial base, secure our supply chains, and become a “five eyes for defense procurement.” It’s in our best interest to ensure our allies can leverage our technological advantages and we can leverage theirs.
Without a strong national security innovation base, the Pentagon cannot implement the National Defense Strategy. Congress’ job is to put the appropriate, tailored policy in place and provide sufficient, predictable resources to help the industrial base meet these challenges. Together, we can harness the power of American innovation to ensure that we are able to win the wars of the future.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.