WASHINGTON — The next U.S. defense secretary must be prepared to invest heavily in game-changing technology, even if it comes at the cost of existing capabilities, in order to maintain a credible deterrent for China and Russia, according to former Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy.

“Our ability to deter is — it’s not gone, but it’s an eroding asset,” Flournoy, who is seen as a top contender for the job of defense secretary should former Vice President Joe Biden win the November presidential election, said at the Aspen Security Forum on Aug. 6. “And we’ve got to pay attention now to making sure that we attend to that and invest in” needed capabilities.

“I think there’s, sort of, two parallel efforts that have to happen. One is investments that may take a decade to be fully realized and integrated into the force. Another is the question of, what can we do in the next five years with what we have, but use it differently,” she explained.

And that requires what she termed “big bets” that may take a while to come to fruition, but which need investment in the near term to get moving — investment that may require cutting legacy forces to free up money from a defense budget that has likely peaked.

“Defense budgets are probably going to flatten in the coming years, no matter who wins the election,” Flournoy said. “That means you have to make trade-offs and you have to make hard decisions, which means you probably need to buy fewer legacy forces in order to invest in the technologies that will actually make the force that you keep more relevant, more survivable, more combat effective, and better able to underwrite deterrence.”

While noting there is a “whole laundry list” of future technologies on which to make big bets, Flournoy highlighted two she considers particularly important. The first is a “network of networks” for secure communications as well as command and control that can survive an attack from any domain — space, air, naval, land and cyberspace — that China could seek to use.

“We need a command-and-control system that is powered by artificial intelligence to enable that kind of resilience in a much more contested environment,” Flournoy explained.

The second is greater investment in unmanned systems in order to augment manned capabilities.

“China has created a set of threat rings that are very, very lethal places for U.S. forces to go,” she said. “We want to augment our manned forces with unmanned systems that are still controlled by a human being, but that dramatically improve ... our ability to project power to defend an interest or an ally who’s under threat.”

As to the second track, Flournoy said “it’s really about changing our mindset and how we imagine using what we have. And so I think there are ways in which new operational concepts that could take, you know, platforms — we have munitions, we have intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance resources … you put them together in new ways to get a better deterrent effect than what we have today.”

In an April op-ed published by Defense News, Flournoy and co-author Gabrielle Chefitz argued that the Pentagon needs to break a logjam with Congress and find ways to build greater trust with legislators. She picked up on that theme with her Aspen comments, noting the Defense Department needs to improve relations with Capitol Hill for this plan to work.

“Sometimes when the department is trying to make those trade-offs to move money from one program to another, if they don’t do a good job explaining that to Congress they sort of get the hand from Congress,” Flournoy said.

“We really have to make Congress much more of a strategic partner in this exercise. They need to understand why, [that] we know what we’re facing, the urgency. They need to be invited into the war games and to the simulations and to the experimentation, and understand why these trade-offs are being made ... to try to get better buy-in and frankly leadership from some of the key champions on the Hill.”

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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