The US military’s technological superiority is increasingly challenged by China, and efforts to maintain an edge are complicated by shrinking defence budgets that have cut money for development, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer said on Tuesday.
Frank Kendall, the deputy undersecretary of defence for acquisition and technology, told lawmakers that the US military’s technological superiority is being “challenged in ways that I have not seen for decades, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region”, where China is pursuing a rapid modernisation program.
“Technological superiority is not assured,” Kendall told the Armed Services Committee in the House of Representatives. “This is not a future problem. This is a here-now problem.”
With China, Russia and other countries rapidly modernising their militaries, Pentagon officials are voicing increasing concern about the possibility of losing the technological edge that has enabled the US military to dominate the battlefield over the past 25 years.
US defence officials say they do not expect a conflict with China or Russia, but the chances are that some of what they develop will be sold to other nations and the US military may eventually face those systems.
Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel underscored the value of advanced research in a visit this month to Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, saying the “technological edge that we’ve been able to maintain is critically important … in the world that we’re in today with more complications, more combustibility”.
Admiral Samuel Locklear, the head of US Pacific Command, told reporters in Washington recently that the military’s “relative dominance” had been diminishing after a period of unequalled superiority.
“That’s not something to be afraid of; it’s just to be pragmatic about,” Locklear said, adding that the military would have to think carefully about which systems to develop in the future in order to maintain that edge.
Asked by a lawmaker how the technology race with China was going, Kendall indicated it was not positive, even though US defence spending is far greater than China’s.
The base US defence budget will drop below US$500 billion this year, while China’s grew to US$119 billion last year after another double-digit jump.
“Overall, China’s military investments are increasing in double-digit numbers each year, about 10 per cent,” Kendall said. “Their budget is far smaller than ours. But their personnel costs are also far smaller than ours.”
Personnel costs make up roughly half of the US defence budget.
Kendall told lawmakers the Pentagon’s ability to respond by developing new technologies was “severely limited by the current budget situation”, with the department facing hundreds of billions in cuts to projected spending over the next decade.
Lawmakers voiced concern about not having known about Pentagon concerns earlier and asked Kendall when he first realised US technological superiority was being challenged.
“We’ve had a steady decline [in spending] over the last several years of cuts … We’ve been pleading with you guys to come over and tell us the problem,” congressman Randy Forbes of Virginia, a Republican, told Kendall.
Kendall said the issue became “a more visible concern” when the department conducted a strategic review after Congress approved the budget cuts in 2011.
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