Unless we make drastic changes, we will lose.
That is the unmistakable and completely bipartisan conclusion of our task force on the future of America’s national security. The stakes could scarcely be higher: Our future as leader of the free world — indeed, the future of the free world itself — is on the line, not to mention the peace and security of our families and friends.
While America has been sitting comfortably upon decades of dominance in military technology and global influence, at times concentrating more in recent years on internal divisions and strife, our biggest adversaries, primarily China, have made dramatic strides. China has not yet caught up with us — at least not in everything — but their rate of modernization far exceeds our own. Even Russia is beating us in certain key areas. Both are interested not just in military superiority but in supplanting Western-style democracy with a new form of authoritarianism that cloaks itself in capitalism as it undermines personal liberties.
“The United States must recognize that without a new commitment to achieving technological superiority, the successes of the 20th century — the American Century — will no longer be assured.” That’s the core theme of the report that we have spent the last year writing as co-chairs of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Future of Defense Task Force.
Our chief adversary is China, which has invested considerable resources developing technologies that already pose economic, political and ethical risks for our nation and our allies. Beijing will field an increasingly large number of capable weapons systems that will pose serious challenges to American forces in a future conflict.
Whoever builds these tools fastest will set the rules of the road when it comes to their use. Now, with our report, Congress for the first time has a bipartisan plan for making sure America will win.
The chief challenge to both our Department of Defense and those of us who fund the department on Capitol Hill is that winning will require not just new investments, but painful cuts to existing systems, platforms and personnel to pay for these new investments.
We are being outcompeted right now in part because the Chinese Communist Party can throw virtually unlimited resources and manpower into the creation of new technology. To cut systems to make room in its budgets, it doesn’t have to go through a democratically elected congress with constituent loyalties.
We simply can no longer afford to invest in both new technology and the parochial interests that members of Congress prioritize because they make for good press releases and help reelection campaigns. “In with the new” can only happen if we go “out with the old.”
The good news is that many of the investments we must make will lead to a more affordable force over time. Much of the new technology our report calls for is far less expensive than the big, old legacy platforms it will replace. Take one example: the number 1,238. That is our best estimate for how many Chinese anti-carrier missiles you can buy for the price of one U.S. aircraft carrier.
Our report details some of the new technologies we need, but none of it will matter if we don’t put the right people with the right skills in place as well. For two decades, the Pentagon has focused on fighting the Global War on Terror, but we need to think about who will win on the battlefield of the future where our enemies will use artificial intelligence and fight us in space.
The best way to build talent quickly is by working closely with the private sector and calling upon our best and brightest to serve. For example, we recommend fielding a Manhattan Project on artificial intelligence and expanding Kessel Run, which recruits top graduates in computer science to solve problems for the Air Force. These are different and incredibly important ways to serve the country.
A whole-of-government approach that better partners with the private sector will lead to advancements that help our entire country and our economy. More publicly funded research and development will help develop the basic science that underlies innovation often best handled by the private sector. A good example of this working in the past is the creation of GPS, which few of us go a day now without using and has shaped how companies make cellphones and cars.
This race will not be won by focusing solely within our borders. We also need to build a new generation of alliances. The pandemic has taught us much about our global supply chains and what happens when they’re disrupted, and one of the lasting achievements of this era will be the collaboration that produced multiple vaccines in less than a year.
We need to renew our relationships with our close allies, but also form new ones that serve our strategic interests both geopolitically and technologically. For example, NATO is important in countering Russia, but NATO does little to deter China. To produce the Future of Defense Task Force report, the members of our task force traveled to Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, and what we learned in our travels is incorporated into the report’s findings. They offer a good place to start.
Last year brought challenges few imagined a year prior. From where we sit, 2020 is just the start of a decade of tough challenges for America that will test our mettle as a Congress and a country. We must come together and meet these challenges with a national, united effort. Millions of people around the world — and future generations that will yearn for a world of freedom and liberty — are counting on us to win.
Reps. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Jim Banks, R-Ind., co-chair the U.S. House of Representatives’ Future of Defense Task Force.