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The rocket carrying the Shenzhou-14 mission lifting off in Gansu province on June 5. China launched more rockets and satellites than the US last year. Photo: AFP

To keep up with China, Pentagon must cut red tape and embrace latest technology, top US official says

  • Beijing has recognised importance of producing ‘more of the high-technology goods they want in their own economy’, says Defence Innovation Unit chief Michael Brown
  • US Defence Department practices have changed little since the 1960s and its adoption of cutting-edge ideas often lag private sector by years, he adds

The US Defence Department is lumbering along with practices often little changed since the 1960s and needs to introduce much more cutting-edge, off-the-shelf commercial technology to keep up with the growing threat from China, said a top US defence official Wednesday.

Defence Department ideas, technology and speed of adoption are often years behind the US private sector, even as China’s military-civilian fusion strategy allows it to obtain and absorb commercial advances far more quickly, said Michael Brown, head of the Defence Innovation Unit [DIU] set up in 2015 to introduce more commercial technology into the Pentagon.

“China’s national strategy is to displace the US as a technology superpower. They’ve recognised the importance of producing more of the high-technology goods they want in their own economy,” said Brown, formerly the chief executive of Symantec, a cybersecurity firm. “We built a two-lane road there when you need to be a superhighway.”

China launched more rockets and satellites last year and has fielded twice as many electric vehicles as the US. And it has developed advanced lithium-ion battery expertise and amassed a 70 per cent market share in the consumer drone market – all with military applications – even as it pours state funding and subsidies into ambitious technology goals under its Made in 2025 strategic plan.

To address some of the yawning gaps between US military and commercial technology to better counter Beijing, DIU is working on several projects aimed at placing more Silicon Valley innovation into soldier’s hands. Often at least as difficult as identifying and developing promising commercial technologies is convincing the slow-moving defence establishment to adopt them in a timely manner.

“We as consumers have access to much more computer power, modern communications capability, than we give our warfighters,” said Brown, speaking at a Centre for New American Security event. “We need to fix that.”

One DIU project has seen commercial satellite technology – used to assess damage after floods, hurricanes and recent California fires – deployed in Ukraine, allowing Ukrainian soldiers to see within minutes, rather than days and weeks, the damage inflicted on and by their Russian counterparts.

Another off-the-rack technology known as synthetic aperture radar mounted on low-orbit commercial satellites can see through clouds and at night. This has advantages over conventional government satellites in, for example, tracking fishing vessels – often Chinese – that operate in contested waters and regularly turn off their transponders. The US Coast Guard can then send this information, their location, likely identity and other data to Pacific island navies and coastguards for use in intercepting them.

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DIU is also testing 3D printing using concrete to build barracks, bridges and aeroplane hangars on Pacific islands with soil found locally, limiting the need to ship bags of cement across the Pacific.
And the use of commercial augmented reality hardware has helped bring down the cost of simulators to around US$50,000 from upwards of US$2 million, a way to better train pilots and ease pilot shortages by using them more efficiently.
Another major priority has been alternate energy. The Defence Department is the world’s largest consumer of fuel. Growing use of synthetic fuel, advanced battery chemistry and solar panels not only eases global warming. It can also make military units more resilient by reducing lengthy, vulnerable petrol supply queues.

One recent army study found that 80 per cent of the time vehicle engines were running, they were standing idle, underscoring the promise of improved battery use.

Recent DIU advertisements include desired “commercial solutions” for robotic vehicles, carbon-neutral synthetic aircraft fuel and devices that monitor internet traffic with the proviso that “adversaries in the network should not be able to detect these devices, to prevent them from developing countermeasures.”

Other reforms the DIU is trying to introduce are less sexy but at least as important, focused on making it easier for the Pentagon to buy outside products and services. Under the current system, it can take 2½ years to plan, budget and approve a single dollar of spending on outside contractors – and decades in the case of major projects like F-35 jet fighters – by which time the technology is often obsolete.

Many of these creaky procurement procedures have been in place over a half-century, the legacy of an era when the Pentagon was a tech powerhouse and accounted for 36 per cent of global R&D spending, compared to less than 3 per cent today.

Another broad initiative involves bringing an unexpected element to the weapons and tactics used by the US army, navy, air force, marines and space forces. Given decades of “endless” US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington’s rivals have had ample time to study how the US operates.

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“Our adversaries in some cases have stolen designs for large weapon platforms, China in particular, and then our adversaries, China and others, have studied our tactics, techniques, procedures, our way of fighting, for years,” said Brown, who has announced plans to leave DIU in September.

“So if we are to bring an element of surprise to a conflict, a future conflict, we’re going to need some additional capabilities that mean we’re not just feeling the same weapons platforms in the same way.”

That includes breaking down procurement walls so that private tech innovations in Australia, Britain – partners in a new Aukus alliance – and eventually Canada could be easily integrated, helping both countries. Another initiative could see major weapons systems designed in modular form that can be updated relatively easily without building an entirely new system from scratch.

Apart from Defence Department bureaucracy, Congress also needs to move faster, he said, citing the laborious military budget approval process and the inability to shift spending mid-cycle as priorities change.

Brown described China as “very far along” in its capabilities. “They’re ahead of us in some technologies, and they’ve given us a run for our money in other technologies like AI and quantum [computing]. So this story isn’t written.”

“We have to make sure that we are making the right long-term investments.”