To Help Our Military Compete with China, the US Needs to Deregulate Tech Development

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In this April 12, 2018, file photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks after reviewing the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy fleet in the South China Sea. (Li Gang/Xinhua via AP)
In this April 12, 2018, file photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks after reviewing the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy fleet in the South China Sea. (Li Gang/Xinhua via AP)

Jonathan Reiber is a senior advisor at Technology for Global Security and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley's Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity. During the Obama administration, he served as Chief Strategy Officer for Cyber Policy and as a Speechwriter in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense.

While we cannot predict our geopolitical future, we can watch trends, and one appears certain.

China has emerged as an economic peer and military competitor to the United States and, over the last three years, the regime's behavior has become increasingly concerning.

Chinese premier Xi Jinping consolidated his rule over the Communist Party apparatus, expanded the belt and road initiative across Eurasia to grow China's economic and political influence, and increased military spending on advanced technology. At home, he has put over a million Uighurs in detention and urges his people to study the works of Joseph Stalin.

For the future of global peace and stability, the United States must seek a relationship with China that allows for prosperity, freedom and security across the Asia-Pacific -- yet America needs also to take logical steps to prepare for a more dangerous future, as well.

Domestically, this means investing in advanced technologies, leveraging commercial-sector capabilities, and implementing policies designed to deter and, if necessary, defeat potential Chinese aggression. Year after year, both American political parties have supported investments in U.S. military readiness for this purpose; it is now a central fixture of U.S. defense strategy.

In a bureaucratic narrative twist that many outside the Beltway may not understand, however, a sub-plot in the U.S.-China drama plays itself out in the back and forth between the executive branch and Congress over acquisition and procurement rules. The U.S. government is trying to figure out the best way to accelerate America's technological advantage and protect it from Chinese theft and espionage.

What are the key drivers of this plotline and why is it so important to resolve it correctly?

Since the second tech boom began in earnest in the early 2010s, advances in commercial technology have made it easier for countries to gain an advantage against each other, from asymmetric tools such as cellphone-triggered improvised explosive devices (IEDs) during the Iraq War to Russia's cyber-enabled influence operation on U.S. elections. This increase in advanced technology has led the United States and China into a strategic competition. Unfortunately, as China invested over the last decade in areas like quantum computing and artificial intelligence, U.S. technology and manufacturing advantages eroded in critical areas such as hypersonic tech, jeopardizing U.S. economic and military leadership.

To compete with China over the long term, the United States needs to enhance its military advantage as well as America's innovative capacity. What are some principles for how best to do this within the Pentagon?

Let's start with acquisitions governance. Congress has increased its defense acquisition regulations considerably in recent years, resulting in some risk to defense innovation. A congressional report found that, from fiscal 2016 to fiscal 2018, National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) "titles specifically related to acquisition contained an average of 82 provisions (247 in total), compared to an average of 47 such provisions (466 in total) in the NDAAs for the preceding 10 fiscal years." While the changing geostrategic landscape demands some new regulations (i.e., new cybersecurity standards for products and services, or for the U.S. Space Force), in matters of acquisition and procurement, less regulation overall may be the right way to allow the Defense Department to do the work it needs to do.

Why is that? The DoD has long suffered under the weight of its own bureaucracy, and the last administration, of which I was a part, spent considerable effort organizing internally to speed up the pace of innovation and technology deployment. For years, the idea of doing something quickly in the Pentagon seemed anathema. During the height of the Iraq War, when the military lacked effective armored vehicles to protect U.S. forces against IEDs, the procurement process was so slow that then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates had to open new offices in the Pentagon to cut red tape and get capabilities to the warfighter quickly.

The Pentagon and Congress both focused on increasing efficiency and stewarding taxpayer dollars and, from 2010 to 2017, the department implemented the Better Buying Power initiative to strengthen the acquisition workforce and enhance its engagement with industry. As a result, today the acquisition workforce is well aware of the need to attract the best technologies and services, pay the right price based on the market, and manage procurement projects to arrive on time (canceling them if necessary).

Later, in the Obama administration, the Pentagon recognized that for the United States to succeed in the long term against China and other countries' strategic advances, the DoD needed a new approach to developing new technologies. Under the leadership of then Defense Secretary Ash Carter, the Pentagon set up an outpost in Silicon Valley, the Defense Innovation Unit, to sense emerging technologies from the center of American innovation. Other initiatives included the Strategic Capabilities Office, the Third Offset Strategy and the Defense Innovation Board. It is a positive sign that many of these initiatives have continued (in some form) in the Trump administration; while the Third Offset strategy may have lost its name, the naval officer who helped run it during the Obama administration ran the U.S. Navy until August 2019, providing an element of strategic continuity.

Then came a major regulatory change. In the 2017 NDAA, Congress passed legislation to reorganize and reallocate acquisition roles away from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to the military departments. This was a significant restructuring. Rather than looking for new ways to regulate the Pentagon workforce today, a smarter course might be to let the Defense Department settle into the acquisition roles Congress has recently set for it, assess successes and failures of the new organization, and determine areas in need of assistance over time.

Some new regulations are certainly needed. The Defense Department recently passed the Cybersecurity Maturation Model Certification, requiring all defense contractors to meet verified cybersecurity standards as a condition of working with DoD. It will protect defense contractors against cyber-enabled intellectual property theft, a key part of China's playbook.

The government also needs to continue to foster defense innovation at home. The Huawei challenge to U.S. national security is real; with technology built abroad, nation-state actors can implant backdoors into component parts, and one backdoor can grant an adversary keys to the kingdom. It makes no sense for the United States to procure any critical parts from a country that, among other things, stole the blueprints for the Joint Strike Fighter for its own jet.

As Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia) recently said, "No major Chinese company is independent of the Chinese government and Communist Party."

To manage analogous risks, the United States needs to keep technological manufacturing capabilities in North America to ensure components' security. A strong domestic manufacturing base translates into U.S. jobs, but also broader innovation, as military investments can spin off into civilian technologies (like GPS, originally designed for the U.S. Air Force).

Technology changes our lives with each new innovation, from the industrial revolution in the 19th century to the iPhone in our own. Countries and regimes change their nature and behavior too, and China's economic and technological rise is now a key driver of the modern era.

Facing China, the United States needs to foster responsible behavior abroad and invest to maintain its technological edge at home.

As a matter of principle, any new legislation should aim to decrease barriers for innovation and consolidate manufacturing in the United States (as a number of provisions in the 2020 NDAA have done), and pause on leveling any significant additional burdens on industry and the acquisition workforce.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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