By The Honorable David C. Gompert
A wave of new technologies is gathering strength – technologies that draw on but transcend such digital technologies as micro-processing, sensing and data-networking. The new technologies can learn, make decisions, and solve complex problems in a blink. They include artificial intelligence (AI), advanced autonomous systems, and quantum computing (QC), and should empower humans, not demote them.
At present, the United States of America has the lead. But it can neither control the spread of these technologies nor be complacent, for it faces a formidable new challenger, China, which is committed to and capable of technological greatness. The United States last strategic rival, the Soviet Union, was too isolated and rigid to compete technologically — indeed, the Digital Revolution hastened its demise. In contrast, China leads the world in manufacturing and trade, and has proven prowess in electronics, computing and telecoms.
Over time, the American and western “way” of individual freedom, accountable and limited government, and risk-taking spirit should prevail. Meanwhile, however, because the Chinese state plays a huge role in the economy, it can plough resources into top-priority technologies, regiment industry and harness the scientific establishment. Sure enough, China is investing heavily in the very technologies that define the great rivalry, such as AI, both to renew China’s economy and to end the United States military and economic supremacy.
The U.S. government does not have the means the Chinese state does to force-feed key technologies. Recall that as the Internet revolutionized the United States and world economy and way of life, Washington stayed on the sidelines. The digital industry did not want government “help.” Eventually, new technologies migrated into U.S. military capabilities via a process called “spin-on” (the opposite of “spin-off” from the military to the civilian economy). Because the Soviet Union could not compete technologically, there was no imperative for U.S. government intervention to accelerate spin-on.
But with China as the rival, the United States cannot afford a laid-back approach. Once again, the private sector — with its talent, capital, speed and scale — is the leader in inventing and using new technology. The government cannot and should not take the helm. Yet, as recent reports by the Council on Foreign Relations* and the Reagan Institute** propose, government can do more to promote and focus R&D.
The government can and must do something else. These new technologies can transform the world, including the nature of economic and political rivalry between the great powers, China and the United States. Beijing can command the flow and application of technology to areas where it seeks supremacy, for example to its military forces. Because Washington cannot, it must induce such a flow by attracting private companies with key technologies to want Government business. Despite years of pledges and initiatives to reform government acquisition processes, these still discourage private firms that normally rely on eager customers, flexible contracts, constant change and rapid profits. Against China, the U.S. government cannot depend on standard contracts and contractors to develop these technologies for national security and other applications.
So, the US government, including the Pentagon and other agencies, must accelerate efforts to streamline acquisition decision-making; expand sole-source options; ask traditional prime-contractors to partner with private technology firms; offer such firms R&D funding and production opportunities; and incentivize more private capital to flow to national security. If these steps are taken – a big “if” – the United States should succeed. Modest steps being taken to this end must be institutionalized. Spin-on cannot wait.
* “Innovation and National Security: Keeping Our Edge.” Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force Report No. 77, 2019.
David C. Gompert has served in seven previous U.S. Administrations, including as Principal Deputy Director on National Intelligence (2009-10). He has also been an executive in the information technology industry, published extensively on national security and technology, and served in leadership roles with Damazein portfolio companies